Managed Retreat Toolkit


Land Swaps

Introduction to Land Swaps

A land swap is the exchange or “swap” of title to land in perpetuity between two or more property owners. This acquisition tool typically centers on an in-kind exchange of property between parties instead of the purchase of land, although money can supplement in-kind exchanges. Land swaps can take a diversity of forms, involve different numbers and types of property owners, and can be highly complex, but they also provide an effective means of effectuating retreat on a large scale. Land swaps can occur between a government and private landowners, like residents or businesses, or involve other parties or intermediaries, like nonprofits or land trusts. 


Lands Swaps in a Managed Retreat Context

Governments that own public land, including vacant lots, may consider land swaps to implement retreat for different purposes. In a managed retreat context, land swaps can be used for different purposes including to facilitate:

  • Inland wetland mitigation and ecosystem conservation by acquiring priority migration corridors and large, contiguous areas of upland property that are less susceptible to sea-level rise and can be protected in perpetuity (e.g., Los Cerritos Wetlands Restoration and Land Swap (Long Beach, California)); or 
  • Affordable housing transitions away from vulnerable coastal areas experiencing sea-level rise, flooding, and land loss by acquiring higher ground capable of supporting safer, thriving communities (e.g., Resilient Edgemere Community Plan, New Orleans Project Home Again Land Swaps).

Depending on the purpose, state and local coastal governments and other nongovernmental partners can design land swaps for retreat in ways that meet community needs. 

While larger size properties are often used to implement land swaps, parcel size alone should not be a determinative factor for decisionmakers evaluating this potential acquisition tool. For example, in Long Beach, California, a public-private land swap is planned that would exchange 154 acres of land currently in private ownership for five acres of publicly owned land. In addition, housing in higher ground receiving areas could be consolidated on denser, upzoned parcels.


Policy Tradeoffs of Land Swaps


  • Governments may have insufficient land to facilitate swaps. They can also involve complex real estate transactions. Governments should consider the size of potential parcels, in addition to the different types of values or benefits land can provide to attract a variety of potential swap participants. 
  • Land swaps can also be politically controversial as residents may be concerned about the transfer and conversion of public to private land. 


  • Land swaps can help governments avoid spending money to buy out property owners in flood-prone areas. 
  • Land swaps can also help ensure that affected residents are able to relocate to higher ground within their existing communities, thereby preserving local tax bases. 
  • Land swaps potentially save governments money overall by avoiding future service, maintenance, infrastructure, and disaster recovery and response costs. 


  • Land swaps can remove existing development and hard, structural barriers to facilitate the inland migration of coastal wetlands and forests that are unable to keep pace with sea-level rise, saltwater intrusion and salinization, and a loss of sediment to “adapt-in-place” on the coast. 


  • Compared to buyouts, land swaps can increase participation in acquisitions by reducing uncertainty because property owners are aware of the location of their new property upfront.
  • Larger-scale land swaps implemented to voluntarily relocate residents to higher ground may help communities stay together and preserve social cohesion, compared to having people move individually through standalone buyouts. 


Practice Tips

When implementing land swaps in a managed retreat context, decisionmakers may consider the following practice tips to address and balance different policy tradeoffs: 

  • Structure land swaps in accordance with a community’s specific objectives for managed retreat: The objectives and outcomes of a land swap should guide all elements of a deal, from potential land to be swapped to community members engaged. 
  • Be strategic in selecting local lands to be swapped: Land swaps can be more cost-effective and easier to garner political support if communities and ecosystem benefits are maintained locally or regionally. 
  • Be creative: Land swaps are complex and may require creative approaches to be implemented (e.g., multiple private property owners and multiple parcels, in addition to monetary support, may be needed to implement a land swap).
  • Plan to account for homeowner and housing needs: For land swaps that involve homeowners, ensure that new comparable housing is or can easily be constructed and available within a reasonable amount of time that does not cause undue hardships and moving delays for participants.

Related Resources

Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas — Long Beach, California: Los Cerritos Wetlands Restoration and Land Swap

The Los Cerritos Wetlands Oil Consolidation and Restoration Project provides an example of how public-private land swap arrangements can be aligned with environmental restoration and protection plans, and used to advance longer-term visions for managed retreat. The Los Cerritos Wetlands Complex, located in Long Beach, California, has faced decades of degradation from human activities and development resulting in the original wetland size of 2,400 acres being reduced to a few hundred acres of wetlands area today. Much of this remaining wetland area is privately owned and used to conduct oil operations. The Los Cerritos Wetlands Oil Consolidation and Restoration Project would transfer 154 acres of privately owned wetlands to public ownership as part of a land swap arrangement. Specifically, as a part of the land swap, the 154 acres currently used for oil production will be exchanged for five acres of wetlands currently owned by the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority (LCWA). The land swap aims to restore a major portion of the wetlands via a mitigation bank, increase public access, reduce the oil production footprint and consolidate operations, and provide economic benefits from increased oil production revenue. Regardless, the land swap plan also involves a number of environmental and social tradeoffs that state and local decisionmakers have had to address, such as an expanded lifespan for the oil-production facilities, and a continuing or increased amount of greenhouse gas emissions and risk for potential oil spills, that can provide lessons and recommendations for other local governments considering land swaps as a legal tool to facilitate retreat in coastal areas.

Managing the Retreat from Rising Seas — Queens, New York: Resilient Edgemere Community Plan

The City of New York piloted a land swap in the low-lying urban neighborhood of Edgemere, located in Queens, New York City (NYC), after it experienced severe flood damage after Hurricane Sandy. Subsequently, the city, among others, partnered with the community to develop the Resilient Edgemere Community Plan, which creates a long-term vision for achieving a more resilient neighborhood. Among 65 projects included in the plan, the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) implemented a land swap pilot project to provide buyout and relocation assistance to residents within a “Hazard Mitigation Zone” (HMZ), an area of the neighborhood at risk of destructive wave action during storms. Through the land swap pilot project, residents were eligible to receive a newly built, elevated home on safer city-owned land outside of the HMZ. In exchange, residents would transfer the title of their damaged, original homes to the city. As part of the city’s ongoing work, the damaged homes will be demolished and maintained as open space. During implementation of the land swaps, the city encountered administrative challenges (e.g., to acquire clean title to the storm-damaged homes) and construction delays for the new homes that delayed transitions for the land swap participants. Ultimately, only three homeowners participated in the land swap and the city provided alternative financial incentives to buy out other residents located in Edgemere’s HMZ. This example can provide takeaways for other local governments regarding lessons learned about land swaps and opportunities to overcome implementation challenges to support managed retreat plans and strategies.

Greauxing Resilience at Home — City of Houston, Texas: Resilient Houston and Affordable Housing and Nature-Based Efforts

Houston has been battered by six federally declared flooding disasters in five years, including the record-setting Hurricane Harvey in 2017. A significant amount of Houston’s existing development is located in vulnerable floodplains. These land use patterns, combined with recurrent disasters, have served as the impetus for Houston to undertake several related efforts to increase local resilience. Notably, the city developed the Resilient Houston plan. One of the goals in Resilient Houston related to managed retreat is Goal 8 for living safely with water and the removal of all habitable structures from the floodplain by 2030.

To achieve the vision set by Goal 8, one of the resilience approaches embraced by both the Resilient Houston plan and Harris County is to prevent future flood damage in places where structural protections like levees and repairs are not cost-effective or beneficial. Under Goal 8, Houston plans to pilot potential relocation efforts on the city level to “make room for water” to live more safely with it. To address the flooding risks faced by underserved and low-income communities, Houston will work with partners to create a community buyout and land swap program for any homes inside the floodway or floodplain that cannot be reasonably repaired or elevated. To facilitate a land swap, the city could strategically acquire vacant properties outside the floodplain or at higher elevations to enable buyout participants living in a floodway or the floodplain to relocate to safer homes. In turn, flood-prone properties acquired under the program can be returned to open space and used for flood risk reduction and public amenities. Depending on the future direction and potential implementation of Resilient Houston, other regional and local governments may be able to learn from such a future land swap program.

New Orleans, Louisiana Project Home Again Land Swaps

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Project Home Again (PHA) used land swaps coupled with a redevelopment program to facilitate relocations of low- and middle-income homeowners to less vulnerable areas with new affordable housing. PHA aimed to concentrate redevelopment away from lower-elevation flood risks areas and expand relocation options for affected homeowners. PHA was funded by private sources through a $22-million philanthropic gift. The PHA program demonstrates how land swaps can offer a tool for planners and policymakers to effectively guide redevelopment in disaster recovery settings and expand affordable and resilient housing opportunities. A similar land swap model could also be considered in a pre-disaster context and phased in over time, if community consensus, vacant or developable land, and funding for housing construction exists. Since PHA was privately funded, other governments may have to evaluate potential revenue sources to implement a land swap on this scale if land cannot be swapped through in-kind arrangements.

Quileute Tribe of La Push Relocation, Washington State

The federally recognized Quileute Tribe of La Push in northwest Washington is implementing a phased approach to managed retreat through a federal-tribal land grant swap. As a part of its move to higher ground, the Tribe is prioritizing the relocation of critical infrastructure and community facilities and residences.

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